A tinge of Soho, a pinch of Fifth Ave, a linger of Rodeo Drive. This physically describes Black Scale NYC, a just-down-the-road yet out of the way menswear destination. On a slate grey cobblestone street in the city that never sleeps, a sliding door entrance opens to a polished all-black-everything ‘man cave’ if you will. Inside above our heads, a roller coaster light marquee from Coney Island spans the ceiling. Enclosed in glass cases, wallets, shades and customized lighters are immaculately lined, as are the jackets, jeans, hoodies, and tanks that hang from adjacent racks. And I can’t shake the eerie feeling that someone is watching me. In fact there are two sets of eyes. Black Scale co-founder Al from the back office, and Mona Lisa.
Reluctant to speak to us at first, Al invites us to sit and smoke j’s for almost three hours as he goes on to tell the story; the story of his brand, his beginnings, his friendships, how he came from DJ-ing in San Fran, to working and living in NYC, building a fashion house. But I will not bore you with useless facts. You can Wikipedia that. I want to tell you the story about a guy who’s young enough to wear his own shit and look decent, yet old enough to look at youth like me and shake his head at our impatience.
It’s always nice to have an interesting subject to write about. Usually with fashion stories like this, I can edit out all the boring nonsense where do you find inspiration? and whip up something short, sweet and to the point, with a link on where to buy shit. This time was different. I haven’t sat on a story for this long since I don’t know when. Why you ask? What’s so special about some dude designer in NYC? Sure it’s easy to generalize Al and Black Scale as just another guy, just another brand. This time was different and I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe I felt Black Scale isn’t like any other brand. Or maybe Al is just really good at what he does in making me believe Black Scale is special. What is undeniable about Al is that he’s such a fucking great story teller; it would never be possible to capture his essence, to capture that mood in that room that uninhibited bro-on-bro hommie-talk honesty. It got to a point where I didn’t want to write this at all. Not because I wanted it to be some great fucking literary masterpiece; it is after all, one story, about one brand, going on the Internet to float around into non-existence and be archived by Google. But that feeling of not being able to make shit happen instantly, as I have so conditioned myself to expect is just my point. I wanted this story done, and I wanted it done now. And when I was about to give up, I remembered something Al said;
“All we’ve been doing since the beginning is trying.”
He speaks from experience in relation to realizing the brand that Black Scale started as, and what it has become. I feel as though this whole trying and being patient and aware of your surroundings and timing is somewhat of an old-school mentality. I am going to generalize here, and call out ‘my generation’. You know who you are. That aspect of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying until you can’t try anymore is something that’s kind of foreign to us. Its all about finding the shortcut, isn’t it? For someone like Al, who has tried and failed and tried and failed, and has come to the point when you think you’ve hit your limit, when you cross the threshold and create a new limit. The right timing, those people and conversations and ideas that lead you to, for lack of a better term, an ‘a-ha’ moment. I let this idea brew in my head until nothing made sense at all. I re-wrote this story six different times, and I could have just sent it to the man to publish, but then I felt it would not do justice to someone like Al who has always been on the pursuit of persistence. I didn’t know where this story would take me, but I guess it brought me here. I started to reevaluate my story telling techniques. I let myself go with the flow of what I was seeing in the people around me, how we live, how we speak. So fast, so instant, bordering on carelessness. Did I really imagine Al could talk about his brand for three hours? Could anyones attention span last this long? I like to think that I have a knack for listening and editing what people say at the same time. But Al had one up on me. I had no ammo, no past stories to look back on. I had lost everything. I had to turn my losses into lessons.
Al too has had his share of losses and lessons. Sometimes we don’t know what we want, and then sometimes we do. A pang in the stomach, an all consuming idea you see it floating around in your bowl of Ramen noodles. Al and his co-founder but more importantly, friend like a brother Mega, lost comfortable jobs at HUF, Al doing graphic design (which he still helms now at Black Scale) and Mega managing the business side of things. A retired DJ and a defunct retail manager had two options: sink or swim. They chose to float. It was recession time, and so, logically, the worst time to start any new venture, especially one in fashion. But it wasn’t just about the fashion. On the surface, sure, Al is a graphics nerd, a self-professed shy guy (though I question this as he revealed himself a not-so-shy guy in several instances during our conversation) and Mega, the boisterous loud-mouth fashion kid (who we didn’t get a chance to meet). It wasn’t an idea to just start a line. If they didn’t have the losses, the lives they lead before meeting each other, Black Scale may have never left the drawing board. It was all about timing. Nothing pursued. Going with the flow.
Being at the right place and the right time is just as important as being in the right place at the wrong time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. Al’s ability to recognize all of theses states allowed him to take a big risk — open a fashion store in one of the biggest, cut throat cities in the world, during a historically terrible economic recession — and do it balls to the wall.
It’s a fault of ours, and by ours I mean, my generation, to have expectations of results before we’ve even started to do anything. Unrealistic expectations of this so called overnight success we are so accustomed to. Just because we think someone or something is a new this or a new that doesn’t mean they are new at all. Doesn’t mean there isn’t years of work and failing and efforts. We have become so used to people and places coming and going in and out of our lives and consciousness, that when someone like me meets someone like Al, you feel time stop a bit – or at least slow down. You’re in the presence of someone who’s more than just his brand or his style can express. This dude’s wise.
All too often, I feel people my age, we are crippled by a made up fear, a fear of failure, a fear of the unknown. Someone like Al doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s seen a few things and has learned a few things along the way, enough to get over his fear of starting something fresh on seemingly shaky grounds. To be confidently crazy but to also know just how much work is necessary to realize a brand and a store like the one we are sitting in. Could Al have known one trip to NYC that was meant as a vacation would be the crucial moment for brand expansion? He couldn’t have known, but he had the experience in San Fran already, where Black Scale was founded, that would give him a filtering set of eyes, taking in the New York sights. Black Scale was in the mix of preppy West Coast kit, (labels). “When I got to New York and saw what people were wearing – black uniforms – I thought to myself, man, we GOT TO be here.” Black Scale was well-received in San Fran already, and with plans set to be finalized for L.A. expansion, Al turned things upside down and knew he had to be in NYC, even before L.A. Al may not have come to NYC knowing everything that would happen, but he definitely didn’t come here to fail. Al and his Black Scale is that mysterious silhouette in the darkest corner of the bar, the only light coming in three second intervals from a cigarette cherry. A brand that sits, observes, feels and listens, waiting for the right time to make a move, and all the time, with a spark in his eye, a slight smile on his face, eyes that see, and a smile that comes when you know something no one else does. That Mona Lisa look.
He could of never of known or realized what he was seeing though, had he not spent time working in a place quite the opposite of the East Coast. A hustler by nature, Al flew back and forth with a small team from San Fran to NYC building his network, and when enough people were ready to listen and had listened and loved the idea of something like Black Scale, Al and Mega were ready to touch down and give New Yorkers a dark and sinister label, so mysterious in its conception, it remained nameless for five full seasons. This wasn’t some elaborate cool-guy marketing scheme, but in the end it ended up being one. “We just didn’t know what to call it” Al admits.
For every positive, there is a negative. Black is the absence of light, because it absorbs all light. Black is the potential and possibility of something so certain as black; the absence of something, but also the complete absorption of something. Black is black but black is white too. Black conceals, white reveals, but you can’t have black without white. It is a perfect balance. It is the Black Scale theory; the unpredictability of time, being as elusive as the concept of black, and finally seeing the light. The essence of nothingness, of starting something from nothing, using your head in stripping the layers and meaning from everything, in breaking it down to its purest form, this gives meaning to everything, individually interpreted by those who wear it. In something so big as black, the scale represents regulation and balance, the key to their aesthetic. Without it, their vision is irrelevant.
It’s definitely the Black Scale aesthetic and artwork that sets them apart and keeps them interesting. “The point of the Black Scale brand and the artwork is meant to evoke emotions, to pull questions out of you. That’s what art does right? It makes you feel something. That’s how you know you’re alive.” As alive as Mona Lisa, Da Vinci being Al’s favourite artist. She is the perfect face, and her eyes are always looking at you, no matter where you stand. In their logo, the moon represents the 5% nation of Islam. An upside down American flag looks a bit like they’re defacing it, but it’s actually the Betsy Ross flag, with thirteen stars in a circle (in 1776 America had thirteen colonies); “The flag is upside down, but it is not meant as disrespect. It was actually used by captains on ships, in times of need they would turn their flags upside down, to signal to other ships they needed help. It means come help me, I’m in distress. America is in distress right now.” And on the subject of thirteen, in North American culture, being a taboo number (no 13th floors in San Fran), is actually a righteous number in others, as is the swastika symbol in Buddhism meaning peace, but tilted just slightly, we know, means anarchy.
The art is sometimes uncomfortable. Like Mona Lisa’s eyes on a Black Scale tank that are still staring at me. Their seasons founded on themes like Religion, Government, Identity, Death. Heavy fuckin shit yah? Black Scale stems from great artists like Da Vinci, the idea of perfection. It stems from religion, conspiracy theorists, books and high-end fashion brands, with of course, their ability to put a super steezey twist on everything. I mean come on guys, you collaborated with A$AP Rocky. FUCK SWAG jumps off a Black Scale tee from the same rack. And yet they keep a conscious distance and work to make it known they are not a street wear label or a hip hop brand. In terms of fashion references, Black Scale continuously looks back on the greats, they learn from history and take in others mistakes. “We study the high fashion labels; Gucci, Prada, Hermès, Louis Vuitton. We cite books on Japanese denim because they do the craziest shit over there. Conspiracy books like “Beware A Pale Horse” by William Cooper stirred my curiosities and got me questioning.” Because in thinking we know everything, much like my generation does, it’s guys like Al who sit there and school you, and have been through that all-knowing stage, only to realize the more they learn, the more they see, the less and less they know. Then again, to know you know nothing is truly knowing right?
The fact remains, we are in one store, among the countless others that call New York home. How should a newbie brand compete and have longevity? Sorry to bust your bubble guys, but cool factors always wear off. “We don’t pay attention to people who are like us” says Al. Not to say they aren’t fully aware of their competitors, but in that, they continue to always do their own thing, as they have always done. “We don’t want to attain to that, and we don’t want to be influenced by that. We are definitely in the traffic. If you’re not in the traffic, people will forget about you, but were not looking at other brands in our lane. It’s important we keep ourselves in a bubble.” We hope that shit don’t pop.
Al taught me a few things, and I’ll share them with you now. Sometimes you have to really say ‘fuck it’ and jump into something, even if you don’t know everything right away. But you can’t be stupid or you’ll be snatched up like a just-hatched baby turtle. You got to poke your head out and see what’s going on, then go back and be alone with that. Like being alone with this story about this brand and this super cool dude who poured out his life story and shared his weed and ideas and outlook on life. You have to sit in solitude and know when the right time is to share. Also, don’t find jobs, find people. If you are so set in your ways and way of living, if you never let things happen to you then nothing may ever happen for you. If you’re already at the end goal, you can’t expect to have any kind of journey. And the journey is long and the journey takes time and it may be years before anything happens. When you reap a reward greater than your efforts, its probably too good to be true. And maybe nothing will happen for you. But at least you tried. Time spent trying is never wasted, because hopefully you learned something. And above all, if I haven’t made it clear by now, I hope you can at least take away this: Black Scale is cool as hell. Respect your elders and buy something. Shit. You got to tell these youngin’s everything…
Photos by Naphtali McKenly